Kurt Mendelssohn

Kurt Mendelssohn
Born (1906-01-07)January 7, 1906
Berlin, German Empire
Died September 18, 1980(1980-09-18) (aged 74)
Oxford, UK
Residence United Kingdom
Citizenship British
Fields Physicist
Institutions University of Oxford
Alma mater University of Berlin
Doctoral advisor Franz Eugen Simon
Other academic advisors Max Planck
Walther Nernst
Erwin Schrödinger
Albert Einstein
Doctoral students Harold Max Rosenberg
J. G. Daunt
B. S. Chandrasekhar
Influenced David Stanley Evans
Notable awards Hughes Medal (1967),
Fellow of the Royal Society[1]


Kurt Alfred Georg Mendelssohn FRS[1] (7 January 1906 18 September 1980) was a German-born British medical physicist, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society 1951.[2][3]

He was a great-great-grandson of Saul Mendelssohn, the younger brother of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.[4] He received a doctorate in physics from the University of Berlin, having studied under Max Planck, Walther Nernst, Erwin Schrödinger, and Albert Einstein. Leaving Germany at the advent of the Nazi regime in 1933, he went to England. He worked at the University of Oxford from 1933. He was Reader in Physics there, 1955-1973, Emeritus Reader, 1973; Emeritus Professorial Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, 1973 (Professorial Fellow, 1971-1973).

His scientific work included low temperature physics, transuranic elements, and medical physics.

He was awarded the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

In 1974, he published The Riddle of the Pyramids, in which he sought to explain the whys and wherefores of the earliest Egyptian pyramids. Though Mendelssohn himself was not an Egyptologist, the book builds on advice from experts like Sir Robert Mond and Walter Emery, as well as his own visits to Egypt and Mexico. His principal thesis was that the pyramid at Meidum had collapsed during construction, a conclusion he arrived at utilizing his knowledge of physics and which was sparked in 1966 by images of the Aberfan disaster, where Mendelssohn saw similarities to the rubble mound surrounding the Meidum pyramid, a primary destination for his travel to Egypt the year before. Working from that conclusion, he further elaborated a theory that pyramid construction in Egypt took on a life of its own during the Third and Fourth Dynasties, more or less independently of the reigns of pharaohs. His theory has not been taken up by the Egyptological community, but the book remains a stimulating and detailed study of the Egyptian pyramids.

The Pyramid Theory

Mendelssohn's pyramid theory suggests explanations to a couple of mysteries in pyramid construction:

  1. Why in the time of the fourth dynasty, when all of the large Egyptian pyramids were built, there were only three Pharaohs but (with Meidum) five pyramids built.
  2. According to Mendelssohn the pyramids were constructed as cenotaphs, not as tombs and did not have to coincide with a Pharaoh's lifetime.
  3. Building of the Great Pyramids must have required a large workforce. Considering the state of perfection these pyramids show, a decisive amount of this workforce must have been highly trained professionals. Furthermore, due to the geometrical constraints, the higher a pyramid grows, the fewer people are able to work on it. If the pyramids were built independently of each other and at distinct times, it would have been necessary to assemble and train the workforce for each building and lay them off as the work continued. According to Mendelssohn, as soon as a pyramid had reached about half its final size, work started on the successor to alleviate this problem.
  4. The change of the angle seen at the Bent Pyramid can be explained as a reaction to a catastrophic collapse of the Meidum Pyramid, if these monuments were not constructed successively but with an overlap.

Books by Mendelssohn


  1. 1 2 Shoenberg, D. (1983). "Kurt Alfred Georg Mendelssohn. 7 January 1906-18 September 1980". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 29: 360–326. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1983.0015. JSTOR 769808.
  2. Kurt Mendelssohn at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  3. Kurti, N. (April 1981). "Obituary: Kurt Mendelssohn". Physics Today. 34 (4): 87–89. Bibcode:1981PhT....34d..87K. doi:10.1063/1.2914538.
  4. nndb.com. Retrieved on 4 May 2009.
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